What is it that makes one worthy of being the Grail king? In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval tale, Parzival, Gawain is a caring knight, always looking to avoid conflicts when possible, and living up to a very high standard of honor; Parzival on the other hand bumbles through life, usually with little concern for others, and often engaging in battle – even to the extent that he fights several knights at one point without even realizing it. And yet it is Parzival, not Gawain, who is destined to become the Grail king. Why?
Parzival may be confused, and far from perfect, but he has within him, I believe, the seed of spirituality. He was not, like many, raised with a religious doctrine, but was instead completely ignorant of God as a child. When he asks his mother what God is, she gives him an over- simplified answer, telling him that God is, “He who took on a shape in the likeness of Man is brigher than the sun” (Eschenbach, 71-72). Without much more information than that to go on, Parzival sees some knights in their shining armor and assumes they must be God. This, to me, symbolized the importance of when Parzival is setting out on his great spiritual quest, he knows nothing of spirituality or religion at all. As Parzival stumbles through life, he comes to learn to hate God; here we see Parzival having a crisis of faith of sorts, before he has any faith at all.
With time, Parzival becomes more and more aware of the world around him. With the help of his uncle – the hermit Trevrizent – Parzival is able to germinate that spiritual seed within – a seed uncorrupted by dogma – and flower to become a truly spiritual and compassionate person who is ultimately successful in healing the Fisher king and becoming the new Grail king himself.
Gawain on the other hand, as has already been stated, is an overall good man, caring and wise to the ways of the world, but yet he is lacking that seed of spirituality that is within Parzival. As the great scholar, Joseph Campbell once put it:
“Gawain is a lady’s knight; he is the counterweight to Parzival. Parzival is young, this is an older and sophisticated man, a very gracious man who is a man of the world and Gawain’s adventure… is in balance and counter-play to Parzival’s. Parzival’s is that of the ideal of life, the youth who for Heaven’s sake meets just the right girl in just the right moment that way, Gawain never did, so Gawain is the rest of us you might say” (Campbell).
Gawain is, in many ways, that which the majority of us would aspire to be; His quest is a noble one when concerning material things, and he is rewarded with the kingship of the castle of Marvels in return. Parzival on the other hand is not the greatest at worldly things, but comes to embrace that which is reserved for very few: true spiritual attainment. It is this spiritual attainment, encompassed in his growth from ignorant fool to one with a true sense of compassion, that makes him suitable for the role of the Grail king.
Campbell, Joseph. “The Joseph Campbell Audio Collection Vol 6: Western Quest.” Lecture. (Available on Amazon)
Eschenbach, Wolfram Von. Parzival. Trans. A. T. Hatto. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1980. Print. (Available on Amazon)